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Close To Flying, by Cadel Evans

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Cadel Evans: Close to FlyingTitle: Close To Flying
Author: Cadel Evans (with Rob Arnold)
Publisher: Hardie Grant Books
Year: 2009
Pages: 304
Order: Hardie Grant
What it is: The officially approved biography of Cadel Evans.
Strengths: It's about Cadel Evans.
Weaknesses: It's a sycophantically bland hagiography.

If you want an idea of the type of story being peddled by Rob Arnold in Close To Flying, look at the 2008 Tour de France. Cadel Evans went in as the pre-race favourite, having finished second the year before. Alberto Contador, the defending champion, was absent, ASO having decided that he and his Astana team-mates were persona non grata. In the end, the race came down to a duel between Silence-Lotto and CSC-Saxo Bank. Where was that year's Tour won and lost?

Did Evans lose it on the penultimate stage, the ITT at Saint-Amand-Montrond, when he failed to put enough time into Carlos Sastre? Or did Evans lose it on the Alpe d'Huez when CSC tag-teamed him and Evans let Sastre ride away from him, fearing an even more lethal attack from Fränk Schleck? According to Rob Arnold, it was neither of these. Cadel Evans lost the 2008 Tour de France when the Euskaltel-Euskadi rider Gorka Verdugo - "his Basque name can be literally and somewhat ominously translated as 'Gorka, the executioner'" - took him out on stage nine, Toulouse to Bagnères-de-Bigorre, on the approach to the Col de Peyresourde:

"Cadel sustained injuries that would limit his capacity for the remainder of the race."

Pointing to an innocuous looking crash and saying that is where a Tour was lost, it's what some people like to do, as a way of saying their guy didn't lose the race, he had the chance to race it properly stolen away from him. But what Arnold is really doing by pointing to that incident so early in the race is saying this: "but Cadel battled on." Because Evans is a battler - his name itself, Cadel, is, we're told, Welsh for battle - and, lamentably, Close to Flying is one of those stories, the world against Cadel Evans:

"He had been attacked on all fronts; cheats and honest riders got the better of him during the course of the final fortnight. Some of the media needed a story and they created incidents - at some of his weakest and most stressful moments on Tour."

Those media incidents. 2008 was the year when Cuddles - the people's hero - had a bodyguard to protect him from the people. Lance Armstrong's former strong arm, Serge Borlée got to play Kevin Costner to Evans' Whitney Houston. Here's Evans explaining how Borlée came to be part of his entourage:

"I understand that [being the favourite for overall victory at the Tour] brings with it added pressure but I was ready, I was fit, healthy, had good support. But nothing is sure in life. There were a lot of people around me - in the team and elsewhere - who were just so sure I was going to win and I didn't like that at all. It made me uncomfortable. I was just doing my job and wanted as few distractions as possible. It's why they decided that I should have Serge Borlée along in 2008, to keep me protected not because of security issues but just because it's impossible to offer time to everyone who wants it during the Tour de France."

The bodyguard wasn't only protecting Evans from the standard media pundits. He also had to put up with a documentary crew making a film about Cuddles. Yell For Cadel. This throws up a worthwhile question: which is the real Cadel Evans? Is it the one who has a bodyguard and a documentary crew making a film about him, or is it the shy, retiring guy who just wants to race his bike? And which of them was it head-butted the Belgian camera crew that day?

Arnold dodges the bullet on that question. Of the head-butting - and other related incidents - we're told that "the combined times of all the YouTube moments adds up to less than five minutes" of Evans' life. We're told that Evans is rarely "anything but diplomatic, conducting himself in an exemplary manner." The man who head-butted that TV crew?

"This was not the real Cadel. It was an instance when the rider trying to win the Tour was under pressure."

You know what's really funny about this? I don't want Arnold soft-soaping things like the head-butt. I actually like the fact that Evans can be a prickly little shit. I like that Evans head-butted that TV crew that time. I like that Evans can speak his mind and that the script there isn't always pre-approved. For me, these things prove that Evans is human, that he's not simply some marketing man's creation, not another bike-riding automaton.

In terms of Evans speaking his mind, consider his comments on the Olympics, if for no other reason than that the Cold War's five-ringed circus is in the headlines at the moment. Cuddles has represented Australia three times at the Games now - Atlanta, Sydney and Beijing (for some reason he was among a number of absentees at Athens). You'll remember than, in 2008, when Evans was preparing for Beijing, he managed to get himself photographed wearing a 'Free Tibet' T-shirt under his jersey during Liège-Bastogne-Liège. This caused something of a minor rumpus. And resulted in Evans getting a yellow card from the AOC: buck up or fuck off, mate. So here's Evans offering a take on the Games, comparing them with the Tour de France:

"There are so many restrictions to what an athlete is or is not allowed to do at the Olympic Games. The Tour de France has its regulations but at least we are still treated like human beings when we race there; we are subjected to strict doping controls and there are other elements we must adhere to, but it's still possible to voice your concerns and not be afraid of the ramifications. At the Olympics, you're not even allowed to wear your own socks, You sign a contract that essentially puts a limit on what you're allowed to do as a person. I remember reading my contract with the AOC from the Sydney Olympics and it stipulated that athletes weren't allowed to comment on what we were there to compete in; you weren't allowed to talk about anything but your own event. [...] The Tour does have its flaws but sport is at its core. At the Olympics, the sports seem to be much further down the agenda. [...] As a person, when you go to the Olympics and you sign the Olympic contract, you go there and you're not allowed to talk about anything but your own sport. It's a little bit too much for me, and they're just trying to control things too much."

Compare and contrast that outspokenness to Evans on the subject of doping. A remarkable amount of Close To Flying is taken up with this subject. For that, you surely have to give Rob Arnold at least one gold star, no? I mean, he acknowledges the issue, doesn't try to sweep it under the carpet. Sadly though, I'm not sure I learned much more about Evans' take on doping than I already knew before I started the book.

Asked about the subject, Evans offers Arnold a bit of guff about cheaters existing in all walks of life, be it paying your train fair, abiding by the tax laws or getting approval to build a dodgy house. Pressed to explain his feelings on being beaten by dopers Evans turns the question, making it less about dopers and more him and his critics:

"At least the people who criticise me for not attacking them during a race or not winning may think about swallowing their words. Or at least they might realise that if I come second it doesn't mean that I'm not trying as hard as I can."

What the hell is stopping Evans from simply criticising dopers? And it's not like what he's saying in Close To Flying is inconsistent with his answers to similar questions in other contexts. Here he is after the World Championship road race victory in 2009, when asked if his victory represented a win for clean cycling:

"Well, it's not my responsibility to comment on these things. I'm happy that I was top today. I've been criticised. You can never win. But today I've got gold."

Richard Moore recently pointed to Evans answer to a similar question during the Tour this year, after Evans' victory was assured. This time Evans was asked if his victory was a sign that the sport was getting cleaner. His answer was - again - evasive:

"I don't think I'm in the best position to comment on that, sorry."

These answers - all three of them - bother me. Evans is willing to speak out in favour of a free Tibet. He's willing to speak out against the organisers of the Olympic Games. Why is he unable to comment on something as simple as doping?

Let's turn that question: why is it important that Evans actually answer these questions? Well, let's take a trip back to the 2006 Tour de France. Floyd Landis is asked the impact of Operacion Puerto on the race:

"I don't know anything about that ... Look, since you won't stop asking all these questions, it was an unfortunate situation for all of us, and none of us got any satisfaction from the fact that they were not here."

Hardly the answer we wanted to hear.

When Carlos Sastre won in 2008, he faced similar questioning, but at least managed to acknowledge the pachyderm in the pantry, accepting that Manolo Saíz had played a rôle in his career:

"Since I left ONCE we don't speak together. We've taken different paths, we have two different points of view."

Today, if you win a race like the Tour or the Worlds, you can expect to be asked about doping. How you answer the question is important. Dodge it and you look dodgy. So why would anyone dodge it? Why does Evans consistently dodge it?

This, I guess, is the real problem I have with Cuddles. Up to now, the only real opinion I have had of Evans is that I had no real opinion of him. Yes, I liked him for his spikiness, and - up until he won at Mendrisio - I liked him for being one of the sport's nearly men. But there's been so much shit swirling around the man - so many unanswered questions - that I simply don't know what to really think about him. I want to believe in him, but he's not making it easy. And - sadly - reading Close To Flying has done nothing to help me clarify where I really stand on Evans.

So why do I have my doubts about Evans? Well, he has - to say the least - lived in interesting times. And his life has certainly been interesting. Take his first Giro d'Italia, when he was a member of the Mapei squad when Stefano Garzelli was in the maglia rosa and tested positive for probenecid. Now there's an interesting story, waiting to be told. And after having read Close To Flying, it's a story still waiting to be told.

Or what of his early years, at the Australian Institute of Sport? There he was under the tutelage of Heiko Salzwedel. Salzwedel was a former DDR coach, lured to Australia after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Anybody connected with the former DDR is considered toxic. It may be unfair to individuals, but the depth and breadth of the East German doping system mean that that's the way it is. So I was hoping that Close To Flying might help to detox Salzwedel for me. Instead, it leaves even more questions. Arnold alludes to a story behind Salzwedel's departure from the AIS, at the end of 1997, but chooses not to tell it. All he offers is this tantalising comment:

"[Salzwedel's] impact in the sport in Australia should never be underestimated. He, too, has his critics and the politics at the time of his departure were scandalous at worst, unnecessary at best."

In more recent years, Salzwedel seems to have become one of the good guys. He speaks out against doping. Better still, he goes further than most do on the subject and is hard on 'soft' doping. Take 2003, when WADA took caffeine and pseudoephedrine off the old IOC banned list. Salzwedel criticised the new anti-doping watchdog:

"WADA's position on supplements is basically crap. In 2000 it said that doping was 'everything which enhances performance' and recommended that athletes did not take nutritional supplements at all. But now it has recommended to legalise the use of substances which have been scientifically proven to enhance performance - I have examples from my time with the Australian Institute of Sport, as head cycling coach - which is against their own rules."

The toxicity of Salzwedel's DDR past has been decontaminated somewhat by his time with UK Sport and British Cycling, both in the aftermath of his departure from the AIS and again post-Beijing. In between stints at British Cycling he worked with the Danish track squad. Now he's working with the Russians. But there's a big but in there: in between his stints with British Cycling Salzwedel was involved with T-Mobile, where he again crossed paths with Cadel Evans, as well as a young Mark Cavendish.

If you want to know about Evans' Telekom/T-Mobile years, don't waste your time reading Close To Flying. Arnold skips over them as fast as he can. Sprints past time. Given what was going on in the team in those years, you do feel that Arnold has made the wrong choice in ignoring this part of Evans' story.

If Salzwedel's DDR past makes him toxic, then what can be said of John Lelangue and Andy Rhis? BMC may be a new team, but they will never exorcise the ghost of Phonak. Especially not when they have to keep suspending riders like Alessandro Ballan and Mauro Santambrogio whenever the Mantova investigation moves into a new phase. Nor when Sven the soigneur gets busted with a cache of EPO in his possession.

Or what of Lotto itself? Arnold himself notes that "one dirty rider can spoil the image of an entire team." This he says in the context of Thomas Dekker and Bernhard Kohl, both busted for doping infractions that pre-dated their arrival at Lotto. But what of riders busted for doping infractions during their time with Lotto?

What of Björn Leukemans? He was busted in September 2007, an OOC test suggesting the use of testosterone. First he claimed that he had a naturally high t-level. Then he claimed he'd been having sex before the testers arrived for him. When the dust had settled on the whole thing it was decided that the Lotto doctor was at fault for prescribing a proscribed product. What does Arnold have to say of this case? What's Evans' take on it? Keep whistling past the graveyard folks. It's yet another untold story in Close To Flying.

Or what of Volodymyr Bileka, another Lotto team-mate who was a victim of an OOC test, one that this time revealed the use of EPO? Dumb question. One rider can spoil the image of an entire team and Arnold's not the type to spoil the image of his spotless hero by talking about things like this.

Let's take someone else from Evans' past: Michele Ferrari. Is Evans, or has he ever been, a client of Ferrari? In 2007, it was alleged in the German that Evans had consulted Ferrari for training plans. It is claimed that Evans confirmed this fact to journalists, but I've yet to see him quoted doing this. Ferrari, however, has recently written about meeting Evans:

"In the summer of 2000, I got a phone call from Tony Rominger: 'There is this MTB vice-world champion, Cadel Evans, who would like to pass onto road racing. Since he's earning already quite well from his MTB activity, I'd like to know whether he has the skills to consider dedicating to road cycling full time and risk such a jump.' It is always difficult and chancy to answer similar questions, but I eventually agreed on testing him on the road in St Moritz."

While a cynic and a sceptic like me might have questions about Evans that he'd like answered, Rob Arnold is totally sure of his position. He is totally sure of Evans:

"His blood was pure. His intentions were good. And his approach was honest."

The reason Arnold believes this? That hoary old excuse: much tested, never failed, with a twist of a genetic inheritance that needs no doping to improve Evans' God-given gifts. We're told that Evans's VO2 max was off the scale when tested by the Australian Institute of Sport. We're told that Evans has a H-count in the low-to-mid forties. We're told that Evans is one of the good guys. What's not to be believed? What's stopping me from just getting down off the fence and embracing the hero Arnold is selling in Close To Flying?

One reason I simply don't buy the version of the story being flogged by Arnold is this: reading Close To Flying you'd almost believe that everything was hunky-dory for Evans during his five years at Whatever-Lotto, that they were the perfect team for this perfect hero. But no sooner had the book been published - actually, just a few weeks before the book was published - Evans suddenly split from Lotto, buying out the last year of his contract so that he could join BMC.

Fine, you may say, these things happen and Rob Arnold can hardly be expected to have had a crystal ball. No, he can't. And nor is it Arnold's fault if Evans failed to fill him in on a move that - according to Evans himself - was months in the making. But surely Arnold can be expected to have the balls to acknowledge the difficulties in the relationship between Evans and his team, can't he?

These difficulties had been increasingly evident in the run-up to Evans' midnight flit from Lotto. After Evans' dismissal performance at the 2009 Tour, Lotto sponsor Marc Coucke had been critical of his antipodean star, suggesting that the team might be better off putting their support behind Jurgen Van den Broeck.

Evans himself had, for several years, made clear that he had doubts about Lotto's commitment to him, especially in the years when they were attempting to double yellow and green, with Evans their GC rider and Robbie McEwen going for the points classification. Take these comments, from the back-end of 2008, about the difficulties he was encountering in strengthening the Lotto set-up:

"At the same time they signed a lot of Belgian riders, which is good and well for Lotto, and developing riders for the classics [but] that is not going to help me win the Tour. I am a bit disappointed that they fill places with riders who can't help me win the Tour, but then we come to ride it [and it's], 'Hang on, I don't have a strong team. What can we do?' The places are full. My hands are a little bit tied. That is where I have lost a bit of respect towards my team management."

The only real hint of friction between rider and team that Arnold offers though is Evans saying he wasn't riding the Vuelta only for his team to announce the very next day that he was. That's it. Here's Arnold describing the team's backing for Evans in 2008:

"The management of Silence-Lotto realised that the rider who claimed second place last year deserved all the backing they could conjure. No longer could they divide their cast between helping Robbie McEwen win stages and Evans in his quest for a high GC placing. This year it was all for Cadel."

Evans himself contributes this:

"The team do everything they can and that's all I ask of them."

Clearly that wasn't the case. But it was the story Arnold preferred to sell. And - I guess - that's the real problem with Close To Flying: it's just another sales pitch, and Evans is just another modern hero needing to be sold. Single-parent up-bringing? Check. Pet dog? Check. Life-threatening illness? Check. This is the Cadel Evans depicted in Close To Flying. The modern hero. The man who has, almost single-handedly, rescued Australian cycling:

"Cadel Evans is aware that his actions have contributed to people enjoying cycling, perhaps even for the first time, because of what he's doing. He races. People watch, and they care."

And people like Rob Arnold write sycophantic drivel like Close To Flying about him.

* * * * *

You'll find an interview with Rob Arnold (part 1 | part 2) on the Cafe Bookshelf.